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Global Environmental History in the Age of Fossil Fuels

J.R. McNeill
Georgetown University

I. Introduction

Three broad generalisations form the heart of this article. The first is that since 1800 humankind has lived in an age of fossil fuels, even those people who never saw a lump of coal or a barrel of oil. The adoption of fossil fuels represents one of the three or four most crucial ‘choices’ in the history of our species, and more than anything else has shaped the relationship between humanity and the ecosystems on which it depends.1


The second broad generalisation is that the two centuries since 1800 have also hosted the most rapid population growth and urbanisation in the history of our species, facts closely bound up with the adoption of fossil fuels. These processes were, and remain, profoundly destabilising, both socially and ecologically, but at the same time pregnant with economic opportunity.

The third generalisation is that within this period since 1800, it is sensible to see two different eras, one an intensification of the other. The first period extended from c. 1800 until c. 1950 and was the age of coal and of c.1% per annum population growth.

The second, from c. 1950 until the present, is the age of oil and of c.2% per annum demographic growth. The first era was turbulent; the second tumultuous (where tumultuous means ‘super-turbulent’). The tumult after 1950, however, invited a reaction, in the form of modern popular environmentalism, a young cultural and political force whose ultimate impact remains uncertain.

continue to: II. Fossil Fuels

                  III. Population and Urbanisation as Ecological Trends

                  IV. Ecological Changes

                   V. Environmentalism

                   VI. Conclusion

or return to index

1 ‘Choices’ in almost a metaphorical sense, because no conscious choice was ever made to adopt fossil fuels as a central feature of human existence.

Date posted: 30/11/07


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